Greying Japan complains of the noise of children

As Japan's population declines, intolerance of children and the noise they make is increasing in a society getting less accustomed to hearing them, childcare experts say.

A girl smiles at a playground in a park in Tokyo on March 2, 2013. As Japan's population declines, intolerance of children and the noise they make is increasing in a society getting less accustomed to hearing them, childcare experts say.

In a nation where convenience stores blare electronic greetings and political candidates shout through high-volume megaphones at train stations, day care centres are putting up sound barriers to muffle the din that toddlers make and sports clubs are restricting the times that youngsters can play outside to avoid upsetting the neighbours.

Childcare experts and politicians have voiced concern that this creates a self-perpetuating problem in a country with a falling birthrate, where it is seen as less acceptable for parents to expect non-parents to put up with inconveniences caused by their offspring.

When it comes to complaints, "it's now happening daily," said Masako Madea, a specialist in population at Japan's Konan University.

"As society has fewer and fewer children, people get less used to hearing them.

"It's a vicious circle: fewer children makes people less accustomed to hearing the noise they naturally make, which spawns complaints about them and contributes to the growing feeling among younger parents that they don't want to have more children."

Maeda said when she was involved in a project to build daycare centres in Yokohama, a sprawling city that melds into Tokyo, she faced a lot of opposition from those living nearby.

"We were once told not to take the children for a walk" because they make too much noise, she said.

Nobuto Hosaka, mayor of Tokyo's Setagaya ward, who has built up a sizeable following on Twitter for his comments on the issue, told AFP he fears for the future of a country that cannot tolerate the natural noise of children.

"I'm told that kids at one middle school got complaints from people living nearby about the chanting when they were doing running practise," he said. "Now they have to practise in silence."

Outdoor playtime at one daycare centre is limited to 45 minutes a day, whatever the weather and a traditional festival in another town now has to be held indoors.

"Of course we need to be considerate towards people living in the neighbourhood, but it is impossible to make places where children play in total silence."

Hosoka says people who complain don't grasp the connection between these noisy youngsters and their own future.

"It is astounding those people who worry about their own pensions and how society is going to pay for social security won't tolerate" the people who are going to grow up into the taxpayers who have to foot the bill, he said.

An official at Tokyo's Meguro Ward office said the number of complaints they receive about noisy children peaks in the summer when youngsters go to outdoor pools.

A possible explanation was the increasing number of people staying at home in densely populated areas as the population ages, she said.

Around a quarter of Japan's 128 million population is 65 or over and the country has a far-below replacement level birthrate of an average 1.39 children for every woman.

Children aged between 0 and 14 years old account for just 13.2 percent of the total population, the lowest in the world and less than half the global average of 26.8 percent, United Nations figures from 2010 show.

In Taiwan, which also has a low birthrate and an ageing population, the Environmental Protection Administration in August 2011 sided with complainants.

It introduced a rule allowing for fines of up to Tw$15,000 ($500) for people who disturb the quiet of others living in the same building.

The move drew criticism from parents of young children, who complained they were being unfairly targeted.

"It's impossible to ask children to sit still all day long so they don't make noise," said Annie Shen, a teacher in Taipei and mother of two boys, one and six.

In Tokyo last year a neighbourhood family sued a day-care centre, demanding the facility stop emitting noise and pay 17.46 million yen ($172,000) in damages for their mental suffering.

"We asked the family to make a public filing of their complaint," said Hiromi Yamaguchi, president of JP Holdings which operates the day-care centre.

A lawsuit "would determine which side is right," Yamaguchi argued, noting the centre had erected sound barriers and limited the time children can play in the yard but still could not stop the family from complaining.

The court has not yet made a ruling.

Japan has known for a long time that it has a problem with a low birthrate and in 2005 the then government created a cabinet post to help tackle the problem.

December's change of government brought the 15th occupant to the post.

Kuniko Inoguchi, the first person to be named Minister for Measures for Declining Birthrate said Japan had to understand that children are not a social nuisance.

"People's values are wavering," she told AFP in an interview. "We have to push child-bearing issues to the top of the social agenda so that fewer people think these kind of complaints are acceptable.

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Writer: AFP
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